We're all familiar with sunburn—the short-term skin inflammation caused by overexposure to the sun. Besides the familiar redness, pain, blistering, and flaking, overexposure to sunlight can lead to long-term skin damage, including premature aging and an increased risk of skin cancer.

The chief culprit in sunburn is not the sun's heat but its ultraviolet radiation, which occurs in the forms UVA and UVB. This radiation acts on substances in our skin to form chemicals called free radicals. These free radicals appear to be partly responsible for the short-term damage of sunburn, and perhaps for long-term damage from the sun as well.

Conventional approaches to sunburn focus on prevention: staying out of the sun (especially when the sun is strongest), wearing protective clothing, and using sunscreen. Sunscreen blocks much of the radiation from our skin and helps prevent inflammation. A recent study of 1,383 Australians suggests that regular sunscreen use may also diminish the number of tumors caused by one form of skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma.1

Many drugs and herbs may increase your sensitivity to the sun. Some of the drugs that increase sun sensitivity are sulfa drugs, tetracycline, phenothiazines, and piroxicam. Herbs which might increase sensitivity to the sun includeSt. John's wort and dong quai. Particular care should be taken when combining any of these substances, as they could amplify each other's effects.

Several studies have found that vitamins C, vitamin E, and EGCG (a bioflavonoid present in green tea) may help to prevent sunburn when used either topically or orally. Many manufacturers already add vitamin E to sunscreens.

Vitamins C and E

Antioxidantssuch as vitamins C and E neutralize free radicals in the blood and in other parts of our bodies. Test tube and animal studies suggest that they perform the same job in the skin. Levels of these antioxidants in skin cells decrease after exposure to ultraviolet radiation, suggesting they may be temporarily depleted.2,3

In several animal studies, vitamins C and E applied topically to the skin helped to protect against ultraviolet damage.4-7One study found that topical vitamin E seemed to work best against UVB, topical vitamin C protected more against UVA, and the two vitamins together worked better than either one by itself.8Vitamin E was effective even when applied to mouse skin 8 hours after ultraviolet exposure had occurred.9Combining the vitamins with sunscreen yielded the best result, adding to the UV-protection offered by sunscreen alone.10

In addition, preliminary evidence from a small double-blind, placebo-controlledtrial suggests that a face cream containing vitamin C could improve the appearance of sun-damaged skin.11

Oraluse of combined vitamins C and E may offer very modest benefit as well. One double-blind study of 10 people found that 2 g of vitamin C and 1,000 IU of vitamin E taken for 8 days resulted in a modest decrease in skin reddening induced by ultraviolet light.12A 50-day, placebo-controlled study of 40 people found that high doses of these vitamins in combination provided a minimal, but statistically significant, sun-protection factor of about 2.13 (Compare this to the sun protection factor of 15 to 45 in many sunscreens.)

One study found benefits with a combination of vitamins E and C, selenium, oligomeric proanthocyanidins(OPCs), and carotenoids.53However, so far research hasn't found that vitamin E and C, taken separately, are any more helpful than placebo.14,15

For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the full articles on Vitamin C and Vitamin E.

EGCG

Green tea contains a potent antioxidant known as epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG. According to several studies, mice given green tea to drink or topical applications of green tea were protected against skin inflammation and carcinogenesis caused by exposure to UVB.30,31Benefits were also seen in two preliminary human trials.32,33

The typical proposed dose of EGCG is 3 mg per square inch of skin.